The 2017 European Challenge Cup final was a meeting between two teams whose historic greatness has fallen away somewhat in recent seasons, with 2016/17 being especially turbulent for both of them. Gloucester had to deal with the mid-season departure of Head Coach Laurie Fisher, whilst Stade had the shock of a planned merger with local rivals Racing 92, with the players going on strike and captain Sergio Parisse nailing his Stade colours to the mast whilst on international duty before the plans were eventually scrapped.
After an enthralling – and at times controversial – game, the Parisians ran out 17-25 winners, achieving their first ever piece of European silverware. Stade’s route to next season’s Champions Cup now comprises of a home game against Cardiff Blues, with the winner facing either Northampton or Connacht. Gloucester’s season is now over, as their 9th place finish in the Premiership meant that their only way of making it into the Champions Cup was to win last night, allowing them to take Northampton’s place in the playoffs.
I was paying so much attention to the game I completely forgot to take notes (rookie error!) so these are my thoughts on the game as well as I remember them after a couple of shifts at work. I am a Gloucester supporter so am understandably disappointed with the result and certain incidents within the game. However I have tried to be as unbiased as possible and to look at the game without my cherry and white-tinted specs.
Man of the Match Sergio Parisse, Stade Francais captain and still arguably one of the most impressive number 8s in the world, will be leaving Paris at the end of this campaign for pastures new. Likewise, vice-captain Pascal Papé, who was banned for the final, will be retiring at the end of the season. Head Coach Gonzalo Quesada is also leaving Paris for Biarritz this summer. While there is still some real quality left at Stade, that is a lot of experience leaving and I worry that they may struggle even more next season.
Gloucester are also losing a number of players. From the 23 in the squad last night, they are saying goodbye to Darren Dawidiuk, Yann Thomas and club captain Greig Laidlaw, as well as other players not featuring: James Hook, Matt Kvesic and a number of promising youngsters. Though there are some quality young talents arriving to replace these players, the cherry and whites will be losing a lot of big game and international experience especially from Hook and Laidlaw. Head Coach Laurie Fisher has of course already left a few months ago and will be replaced by Johan Ackermann from the Lions, but it does look like Director of Rugby David Humphreys will remain, which I am not sure I agree with.
It will be very interesting to see where both these teams are by this time next year. Hopefully they will both be enjoying more success, but I would not be surprised to find them in similar positions to this year.
An unwelcome return
When Stade replaced prop Rabah Slimani at half time for ‘tactical reasons’, my colleague and I laughed along at home with the BT Sport pundits’ jokes that he would be back on for the last 10 minutes like in France’s 6 Nations game against Wales. I think we were all shocked when, with about 10 minutes left, he re-entered the fray as a blood substitution that quickly became a permanent replacement!
I’m no medical professional, but when seeing the treatment that the prop was receiving for his ‘blood injury’ it did seem that the injury was very minor and in fact something that we would usually see patched up on the field without any need for a replacement. It could have all been completely legitimate but after the French antics in that 6 Nations game, for a similar situation to arise mere months later was bound to provoke scepticism from many watching. To remove Slimani for ‘tactical reasons’ at half time when he had been dominating (admittedly not always legally) first Josh Hohneck and then Paddy McAllister seems an odd decision, which just adds to the suspicion.
I really hope that World Rugby look into this soon, as games will be ruined either by teams cheating in this way, or people accusing the teams of cheating. As I did back during the 6 Nations, I feel that the best way to sort this would be to have an independent medic assigned to each game to assess any injuries and agree that a substitution is needed in order to bring a player back on. This is the only way that I can think for player safety to still be protected, whilst also keeping the game’s reputation intact.
This is the section where I will probably be accused of Gloucester bias, so I want to start by making it very clear that I think the best team won on the night. That said, there were a number of instances where I questioned the decision of referee John Lacey and his officials.
Many Gloucester fans appeared to disagree with the penalty against Jonny May for tackling the man in the air, however that was one of the decisions that I do agree with, though it was very close. The yellow to Heinz was not a decision that I agreed with, however in this day and age I do understand why that decision was made.
However there were two occasions earlier in the match where Stade players dived off their feet at the ruck to tackle Willi Heinz as he picked up the ball – clear penalties, both given as Stade scrums for Heinz knocking on. I also didn’t see any problem with Lewis Ludlow’s clean out of Will Genia that sparked a mass brawl just after the yellow card, and honestly feel that the TMO should have jumped in to have a look at what appeared to be shoulder from Hugo Bonneval to the face of Billy Burns while he was on the ground right in front of the camera. Bonneval then got doubly lucky by not being penalised for a pull back on Tom Marshall as he tried to dot down a kick into the Stade in-goal area. Granted, it did appear to be the slightest of pulls but at the speed Marshall was going, and considering how close he was to scoring even after the pull, this was likely enough to cost Gloucester a try and in my opinion should have been at least a penalty, if not a penalty try.
I do not want to say that the officials cost Gloucester the game, as Stade were the better team, but if just a few of these decisions had gone the other way, we could have been looking at a completely different result.
Trust in the youth
Billy Burns may not have been at his attacking best on Friday night, but he still controlled the game well and continued to be accurate from the tee, as he has been all season. He also continues to put his body on the line for the team and is not afraid to tackle the opposition’s big boys. With Owen Williams joining this summer, I think Burns has done enough to make the battle for the 10 shirt a mouth-watering contest nest season.
Ross Moriarty has had a fantastic season! Voted Gloucester’s Young Player of the Season and also receiving the Chairman’s Award at last week’s end of season awards dinner, the former England U20 was a regular starter for Wales in the 6 Nations and was also picked by Warren Gatland to go on the Lions Tour to New Zealand this summer. Against Stade, he had a great game and it was nice to see him keep playing until the very end, supporting Darren Dawidiuk for a well-taken try to give Gloucester the slimmest of hopes with a couple of minutes left. When available, he is surely one of the first names on the team sheet and I hope Gloucester do everything they can to sign him to a new contract as soon as possible.
Perhaps even better than Moriarty on Friday night was his fellow flanker Lewis Ludlow. The 22-year old has done well this season when given the chances and in recent weeks seems to have been preferred over Jacob Rowan, who has often been the first choice at open side this season. In this match he was a constant nuisance at breakdowns and lineouts and was always looking to put in a good hit on the opposition. With classic 7s Matt Kvesic and Dan Thomas on their way out and Carl Fearns deciding to stay in France, it would not surprise me if Ludlow’s recent big-hitting performances have helped earn him a starting spot for next season.
What did you think about the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge